Groundwater Contamination Modeled to Subside by 2052

Environmental consultants Anderson Mulholland & Associates propose allowing the contaminated Topps site to mitigate naturally

A seven-year long investigation into tetrachlorethylene (PCE) contamination of the soil and groundwater at the former Topps Dry Cleaners site has determined that the scope of contamination is decreasing naturally over time and should subside by 2052, environmental consultants informed the public Tuesday at an open meeting.

Ellen Ivens of Anderson Mulholland & Associates (AMAI), the environmental firm hired to conduct Topps' site investigation, proposed establishing a Classification Exemption Area (CEA) -- a zone where groundwater use is restricted until safety standards are met -- while allowing the contaminated groundwater to attenuate naturally over the next forty years.

AMAI will continue to monitor PCE contamination levels in the groundwater and indoor air every two years as long as the remediation is ongoing, to ensure the passive remediation process is working as expected, Ivens said. In the event that PCE contamination levels reverse and begin to elevate over time, AMAI will step in and take the appropriate measures to mitigate the problem, likely through some form of enhanced remediation.

Investigation at the Topps site began in 1990, after PCE contamination was discovered during remedial investigation of the adjacent on Fair Lawn Avenue.

PCE is a common dry cleaning solvent that at high concentrations can cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty speaking and walking, unconsciousness and sometimes death, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It is classified as a carcinogen by the Department of Health and Human Services

After PCE was discovered at Topps, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection required that additional remedial investigations be conducted there. However, the site's owner failed to perform them. It wasn't until the late 1990s, when unrelated remedial investigations found PCE contamination outside of the boundaries of the Topps site, that the NJDEP concluded Topps Cleaners was the source of both on-site and off-site PCE contamination.

In May 2003, the NJDEP directed Topps' owner to investigate the site and develop a cleanup plan. AMAI was hired to perform the investigation.

Through their investigation, AMAI discovered that PCE contamination in the soil beneath the Topps building had migrated into groundwater and off-site into the surrounding residential neighborhood.

Approximately 90 on-site and off-site ground water monitoring wells have been installed and sampled since the investigation began in order to determine the range and extent of the contamination.

Analyses found that PCE plumes have spread approximately 2,400 feet from the Topps site in a southeasterly direction beneath Archery Plaza and east of Plaza Road, and approximately 1,400 feet south-southwest toward 20th Street.

Some homes in the area have experienced PCE vapor intrusion, which occurs when fumes from the PCE-contaminated soil or ground water seep through cracks in the foundations of buildings and accumulate in basements, crawl spaces or living areas.

Through six phases of testing, a total of 71 homes along Plaza Road, Townley Road, Ramapo Terrace, Ramsey Terrace, Reading Terrace and Randolph Terrace were investigated for vapor intrusion.

Of those 71 homes, 15 were found to have PCE vapors at concentrations that exceeded NJDEP's residential screening levels. Those homeowners were given the option of having AMAI install sub-surface depressurization systems to prevent PCE vapors from entering the home.

In 2008, AMAI sought to eliminate the contamination source by treating the PCE-contaminated soil and groundwater directly beneath the Topps site using a process called electrical heating resistance.

It was the first time this particular technology had been used at a site in New Jersey.

“We put in giant electrodes, rods we drilled in down to 28 feet so that they’re at the top of the bedrock," Ivens said, explaining the electrical heating resistance process. "When you put a current between these rods, these electrodes, the current heats up the soil and the soil moisture and it vaporizes the contamination...We captured all the vapor, all the steam that was coming off and sent it through carbon filter system and so forth to clean it up."

The procedure, which removed the on-site source of PCE, reduced on-site soil PCE levels by 99.9 percent and on-site groundwater PCE levels by more than 95 percent. 

With the source removed and no longer able to contribute to the spread of PCE off-site, AMAI projects the levels of PCE in the groundwater to naturally taper off over time until about 2052, when groundwater across the entire affected area will meet NJDEP standards.

“There’s nothing new that can come in," Ivens said. "Whatever was creating the plume has been completely removed. There’s PCE left in the groundwater, but because we did the treatment and the heating, it’s breaking down. And we’re seeing natural breakdown, in the other edges of the well, so it’s shrinking from both sides."

AMAI will continue monitoring the wells quarterly over the next forty years, or for as long as it takes for the groundwater contamination to subside.

"We will be out there monitoring and modeling and sampling to make sure that the processes are working the way that we expect them to," Ivens said. "We have to recertify [with the NJDEP]…to reestablish the [Classification Exception Area] every two years. And as part of this process too, we will be filing semi-annual progress reports, which I will put in the …so you will have access to the data.”


For answers to some Frequently Asked Questions about the Topps site contamination, click here.

es February 01, 2012 at 02:25 PM
Congratulations to all our neighbors who will be sitting on top of this carcinogen for the next 40 years! Special kudos to the Radburn Association, who received no compensation to decontaminate Archery Plaza, preferring instead to keep this information close to the chest while they solicited a builder to purchase and develop the adjacent Hayward lot. Props, too, for consenting to giving up cleanup of Hayward to the standards agreed 20 years ago. All in all, we can all be proud in Fair Lawn to welcome hundreds of new residents to enjoy their time on top of a toxic mess that has been covered by a few inches of dirt and ashpalt, sealed away for the next 40 years until the issue has finally been resolved -- or someone puts a shovel in the ground.
Michael Alania February 01, 2012 at 06:42 PM
There is no doubting that ground water contamination and the resulting vapor intrusion is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with. However, I don't see how the Radburn Association has any culpability in this. Topps wasn't owned by the RA. The Hayward parcel isn't owned by the RA. Archery Plaza is deed restricted, so houses can never be built on that property. There is no well water from Archery Plaza being used as a potable water source. The RA is not, nor has ever been in the dry cleaning business. I live on the south side of Radburn so this issue is obviously a concern to me. But let's please be careful about suggesting where blame be placed. And better yet, let's hope that our Council and other NJ governmental authorities learn from past mistakes so we can collectively take proactive action to fix this one and avoid making any new ones.
Kelly Stevens February 01, 2012 at 07:34 PM
I began renting on Randolph Terrace in June and just learned about this from the certified letter that was sent by the law firm-- they called it a fact sheet. But what has not been answered for me (sadly, not even in this article!) is what should I as someone who is living here be doing about this? Sadly, I was not able to make the meeting last night because I really wanted to ask that question. Is my Brita filter enough to clean the water my family drinks? Should I worry every time my four year old is in the bathtub? How will I know if there's a problem with the vapor intrusion? Are there signs, symptoms? And as a renter, shouldn't owners be obligated to disclose this information to renters! IF anyone knows the answer to any of these questions, I would love a reply!!
Zak Koeske February 01, 2012 at 07:46 PM
@Kelly I'll be writing an article tonight that answers your questions.
es February 01, 2012 at 09:38 PM
Ask these questions: as TCE vapors percolate up to the surface on "unbuildable" Archery Plaza, in which direction will they flow when the ground becomes saturated? Is it plausible they will flow south throughout neighboring Hayward and Daly field to the planned drainage area across from the ambulance building, or will Landmark be sure to regrade Archery in such a way that they flow onto someone else's property?
Michael Alania February 01, 2012 at 11:06 PM
I'm no expert on the migration of PCE vapors but I did attend last night's information session at the Community Center. The information that the NJDEP and AMAI presented basically explained that the PCE concentration in the ground water is more than 95% remediated. They went on to explain that even when the original source of these contaminants was still active (it is no longer active), that the PCEs basically migrated in the groundwater at inches per year. The primary concern now is that there is no technology to remediate the PCEs that are in the bedrock, which is why they are discussing natural attenuation with regular monitoring. Again, my point above is to not belittle this concern. Rather, it is to correct a misguided statement that the Radburn Association had or has any culpability in this issue. This is a NJDEP and Borough issue. The Borough allowed the dry cleaner to open there and at the time there were lax standards, if any, to monitor ground water contamination produced by that business. Archery Plaza and Hayward have nothing to do with this. In fact, Hayward has been given a No Further Action designation by the NJDEP for the original remediation that was required for the pollution from BASF - which again has nothing to do with the Radburn Association.
BellairBerdan February 01, 2012 at 11:37 PM
This should serve as a lesson to all those "business friendly" politicians that want to relax EPA standards. A business made money for 50 years and we're left polluted and paying for it for 100, if not more. This is a prime example why we do have government standards and regulations now.
Bruce Knuckle February 02, 2012 at 02:14 AM
Kelly, call Borough Manager Tom Metzler. He has a history of treating everyone that calls him as most important. I am sure you will get some info from him.
es February 02, 2012 at 03:04 AM
Should a "civic league" solicit more people to live on polluted land and justify it becase it's "someone else's" responsibility? Is it acceptable that a town issues permits to build there, or at the edge of the Passaic, in the never-ending quest for tax ratables? Someone pays for these short-term gains down the road and often we all pay. Buyer beware. Taxpayer, cough it up. What ever happened to morality?
Sally J February 02, 2012 at 03:13 PM
Kelly-I did attend the meeting so let me assure you that the contaiminated ground water is not the water we drink or use in Fair Lawn. We do not use well water so none of the water you use in your house comes from the contaiminated ground water. In addition much of the contaimination is in the ground water that can be found in the bedrock. This means that unless someone builds and drills down to the bedrock (which no one does as it is very far down) the contaimination water will never effect you. We were also told that this water does not travel up into higher levels of ground. I hope this helps.
es February 02, 2012 at 04:01 PM
Sally J, you may not have seen the entire picture. The issues concerning Kelly Stevens are that she is living in an area where many houses sit over the water table that has been polluted by dry-cleaning fluids from Topps. In a number of those houses, excessive levels of vapors have been measured. Some houses have had vent fans installed to expel the vapors, others have not. Some owners have even refused to allow testing on their property. Fair Lawn does indeed obtain a majority of its water from wells, three of which remain in the Westmoreland area and have been polluted from sources in the industrial park north of Fair Lawn Commons. That area has been listed as a Federal Superfund site since 1983. As to drilling or no drilling, vapors will continue to rise to the surface for the next 40 years if no further remdiation is attempted. Landmark Developers LLC has contracted to build 165 units on the Hayward and Daly Field sites, where other pollutants were first addressed two decades ago. They will necessarily disturb the ground soil during construction, but will not excavate, instead dumping new topsoil and pavement with the EPA considering that to be a sufficient "cap." All well and good, until someone puts a shovel in the ground there a few years later, say to repair sewers or utilities. This is the time and again fallacy - it's someone else's fault, but never the fault of those who would knowingly recruit new people to live on that land.
Donvito February 03, 2012 at 12:13 AM
Kelly, the best thing you can do is move the heck away from there.


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